Two and a half years ago, the Boat Street Cafe was un-Boat-Streeted. When chef-owner Renee Erickson lost the lease on her popular U-District cafe, she was left searching for a new space while running a catering business. The cafe has opened again, not on Boat Street, but across town from the original location, functioning as both a new restaurant, and an homage to its former self.
By day, it is Boat Street Kitchen (lunch and catering operations are run by Erickson in partnership with original Boat Street Cafe owner Susan Kaplan), while at night dinners are served in an adjacent dining room called Boat Street Cafe. Like the original, the new place is hard to find, located as it is near that dizzying intersection where Denny ends and 15th Street Northwest begins. As with the old space, the cafe looks unpromising: It is now housed in the daylight basement of the blocky Northwest Work Lofts building. Still, if you keep your eyes open as you approach, you can peep through several sidewalk-level windows and look down on the heads of the kitchen crew—a whole new take on the open kitchen.
I first ventured to the new Boat Street for lunch on a day of thoroughly evil weather: icy rain blown horizontal by the wind. The bright room of the Boat Street Kitchen offered a healing blast of civility—warm white walls, a gentle clatter of conversation, even white linens on the tables. My shivers disappeared with a lovely chicken-liver pate ($9.50) spread on warm bread with pickled prunes and cornichons for punctuation. Creamy mushroom soup ($4.50) and baked eggs ($9.50) topped with a shower of breadcrumbs also had a remarkably restorative effect.
The Cafe's dining room is bit more done up, with the same clean country eclectica you might have found in the old location: a huge, chalky portrait of a beloved Labrador, a lichen-covered branch mounted on the wall, even the same rough slate tables from the old days. The room is full, and amid the din of conversation, there's an air of relief among the diners—glad to once again sit down at their old haunt, even if it's a replica, and peruse its familiar menu.
The dinner selections are traditionally French, and not overly restaurant-y; they serve as welcome relief from the meat/starch/vegetable monotony of many other bistros. Erickson also knows the lyrical value of cream: It flows unabashedly in the menu's flans (roasted shallot), sauces (Meyer lemon), custards (walnut bay), and gratins, and in a dish of roly-poly Hood Canal oysters ($16.95) broiled in a bath of cream and bread crumbs. The sauce may have needed a dash of the fancy sea salt kept on our table, but the dish reminded me that oysters don't need to be raw to be good—broiling them shows off their ruffled texture and brings out their inherent sweetness.
But not everything on the menu is rich: The kitchen also goes big for bright, zingy flavors like a plate full of homemade pickles ($9.50) filled with peppers, chanterelles, prunes, and carrots in varying shades of sour; or a medallion of beef ($22.50), served not hot but room temp, with a chunky olive marinade on top. Vinegar is a tricky ingredient though—you can easily max out. The olive sauce on the beef seemed too tart and twangy, and a plate full of pickles, no matter how delicious, is a little hard to eat—the husband schvitzed as he made his way through it. Next time, I'd balance it out by ordering the pâté too. On the other hand, nothing tastes better than when tart elements flirt with rich ones the way capers and Dijon mustard dance around a composed salad of beets, potatoes, and sardines ($9.50).
Boat Street, the sequel, feels charming and complete in a way that totally new restaurants cannot. As such, you can bank on its future. It is probably drizzling as you read this, but in my mind, it is already summer, and I am sipping Chablis in the Cafe's garden, wondering if I want ham or spinach in my baked eggs.